The Worldwide Rise of Private Colleges
By DAVID COHEN
As the world's hunger for higher education has outstripped the ability of many governments to pay for it, a type of institution has come to the rescue that is well-established in the United States, but a stranger in many other countries: private colleges.
In many nations, public universities, financed by the government and sometimes run by the government, dominated for much of the past century. No longer. Private colleges are spreading all over the globe, although their characteristics differ -- sometimes radically so, according to country, culture, and history.
Private higher education, says Philip G. Altbach, director of Boston College's Center for International Higher Education, "has been thrust into the limelight."
In some nations -- Canada, Egypt, and Singapore, for example -- the trend is embryonic. In other countries, particularly those in Central and Eastern Europe, Latin America, and throughout much of the developing world, private colleges now represent the fastest-growing area of postsecondary education.
And in places where private higher education has long been the dominant player -- for example, South Korea, where 75 percent of students are enrolled in private colleges -- governments find themselves under pressure to allow those institutions an even greater role in national life.
"In Asia and everywhere in the world, people increasingly recognize that a qualification is the best passport to a better life," says Yoshizo Arakawa, dean of international relations at Japan's Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, founded in 1999. "And that is why we are here."
Credentials from a prestigious public college may well help graduates in their native country, but students often see a private college as the best route to a job overseas or in work with foreign companies at home.
The growth of private colleges embraces a broad range of institutions: Some are run for a profit, others not. Some offer traditional academic programs, others are vocational or technology-oriented. In some countries the government is willing to give money to private colleges or financial aid to their students; in other countries, the colleges get no government money and admit mostly the children of wealthy families.
The World Bank, which has assisted in the movement toward private investment in education, says even governments that spend a significant portion of their budget on public universities cannot keep pace with surging public demand. If governments in Asia were to use conventional solutions to meet current levels of demand for postsecondary education, its capacity would have to be increased by at least 40 percent, according to one estimate.
Meanwhile, private institutions in the United States are often seen as models. "We're experiencing the flattery of imitation," says Jon W. Fuller, a senior fellow at the Washington-based National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
As it happens, the proportion of enrollments at public universities in the United States is at an all-time high -- 60 to 80 percent, depending on the method used to tally the overall share. But even so, Mr. Fuller adds, "there are now more students at private colleges than at any time in our past."
Outside of the United States, the nascent private-college movement is welcomed by public universities in some countries, while in others the two sectors are barely on speaking terms. In Colombia and Indonesia, public and private institutions have worked together within a single association of universities. In Mexico, a nine-month strike last year over the introduction of tuition at the country's largest public institution, the National Autonomous University, drove some middle-class students who were impatient with the strike's socialist ideals onto the campuses of private colleges, whose representative association maintains no contact at all with its public counterpart.
Elsewhere, say observers, it's too early to predict how the two sectors will eventually get along. That looks to be the case in Canada, where, over the heated objections of the Ontario Council of University Faculty Associations, the government of Canada's most populous province recently passed legislation opening the doors to private degree-granting universities.
The move, a historic shift for a nation that has no secular private colleges, means that the first such institution could be up and running by this fall. Also in the works is a residential private university in Squamish, British Columbia, where undergraduate degrees are to be offered beginning in 2003.
Much of the liveliest activity is happening in the developing world -- home to more than half of the world's higher-education market -- where private institutions tend to emphasize job-related skills in business, tourism, and information technology.
Some of the colleges, in countries like Argentina and Malaysia, are already established, fully accredited universities, set amid rolling parklands with gleaming, air-conditioned buildings, in which administrators abide by philanthropic mission statements. Others, including many in the wave of private institutions that opened for business after Bangladesh and Hong Kong liberalized their education laws in the early 1990's, are low-budget commercial operations housed in leased apartments or garages.
For education officials and governments alike, says Mr. Altbach, who has written extensively on the subject, the issues presented by the movement start with how far the authorities are prepared to go in controlling these new colleges -- or whether they should be controlled at all. Private colleges are unconstitutional in Greece, and South Africa has put severe restrictions on enrollments at foreign-operated private institutions. In other places, especially across Latin America, some countries have appeared to have no regulation whatsoever.
For the rest, Mr. Altbach says, the issue of quality control remains ubiquitous, as does the pricklier question of how the growth in the private sector can effectively be harnessed to the greater public good. In South Africa, for example, the government questions whether private colleges will be its allies in efforts to heal the damage done by apartheid.
Elsewhere in Africa, Mozambique is mentioned as typical of a place where the opportunities offered by private education offer an overdue challenge to the old, insular way of doing postsecondary business. The country's Eduardo Mondlane University, its sole national institution, enrolls 3,712 students -- almost a third of the nation's college students -- and claims 23 percent of the government's education budget, along with 39 percent of contributions to the nation's education system from outside donors.
"This is typical, unfortunately, of so many countries in the developing world," says James Tooley, a professor of education policy at Britain's University of Newcastle and the author of The Global Education Industry.
Four private colleges in Mozambique established in the last 10 years enroll 2,598 students. Mr. Tooley argues that private higher education in such countries, especially because it tends to be provided by the for-profit sector, often fosters greater social and economic equality and opportunity for young people than its publicly provided counterpart. Contrary to many experts' expectations, he says, for-profit companies providing higher education have invested heavily in socially responsible programs, quality control, and financial aid through student loans.
Mr. Tooley approvingly cites the Mozambican Institute of Science and Technology, which offers both full-time and part-time study up to the master's degree level. In February, the institute opened a new campus in the center of the capital city, Maputo.
Despite his enthusiasm for private education, Mr. Tooley says "Let's not be naive about it, people can and do get ripped off."
In many cases, governments actively support private institutions, as has long been the case in Japan and a few Western European nations, like Belgium. The Japanese government, for instance, pays for computers and other hardware at private colleges.
In Southeast Asia, Singapore Management University, which opened for business last July, was founded by the state and retains some state sponsorship, but is privately run. "The country decided the time was internationally right to take a different spin in higher education," says Tan Chin Tiong, the provost. Today's students in Singapore, as elsewhere, need more diversity, more choices, he says. Having a private university seemed to offer them the right opportunities.
For the foreseeable future, the most visibly private face of the new Singaporean institution will remain the autonomous style of its administration and its freedom to charge higher tuition fees and forge more private-sector partnerships than its two established national counterparts. The management university, set up in collaboration with the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, has already established four endowed chairs. But the city-state's government remains its major supporter, shouldering about three-quarters of its operating costs.
Malaysia, one of Southeast Asia's biggest exporters of students to Australia, Britain, New Zealand, and Singapore, is in a different situation than its rich neighbor, but is reaching for a similar private solution to bolster its own educational needs.
The economic crisis of the late 1990's forced unprecedented numbers of young Malaysians who might otherwise have studied abroad to look for options at home. The government, in turn, has encouraged the growth of an already flourishing private higher-education sector, which enrolls 215,000 students, almost half of them in five major private colleges, compared to 145,000 at the public universities.
"The range of institutions is huge," says Robert Bignall, the pro vice chancellor, or deputy president, of the Kuala Lumpur branch of Australia's Monash University. "And so, I have to say, is the quality of what they offer."
While the Malaysian government requires Monash and other foreign-operated institutions to uphold the same academic standards it does back in Melbourne, some other private enterprises, in Mr. Bignall's view promote themselves at "the dark end" of the academic spectrum. "They're illegal operations, basically," he says.
Little matter, says Daniel C. Levy, a professor of education at the State University of New York at Albany who has studied the international growth of private education, particularly in Latin America. He believes that the potential downsides of private higher education need not detract from the overall value of the international movement it represents.
"Some of what's happening probably does deserve condemnation," he says. "But a lot of what's happening is very worthwhile."